In the final seconds of the first quarter Thursday night, Derrick White shook off Heat guard Max Strus, stepped back, and drilled a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded. The bucket capped a statement start for the Celtics, extending their lead to 15 and rallying the TD Garden crowd.
“D-White came ready to play,” teammate Jaylen Brown said later.
With their season on the line again, the Celtics couldn’t have asked for a better performance from White. The 28-year-old guard made important shot after important shot, including six from behind the arc. He also held his ground defensively against Heat star Jimmy Butler, who finished with a series-low 14 points.
White led all scorers with 24 points in the Celtics’ 110-97 blowout win over Miami in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals that staved off elimination once more.
The Celtics never trailed, setting the tone with a 20-5 run to open the game. Each time the Heat looked as though they could cut the deficit to single digits, White seemed to be the one knocking down a critical basket to maintain the cushion.
“Big-time player,” Brown said. “Big-time shots.”
White, acquired at the trade deadline in February 2022, struggled off the bench in the postseason last year. He shot just 36.4 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from behind the arc. He disappeared in Games 5 and 6 of the Finals, making just 1 of his 10 field goal attemptsas Golden State won the championship over the Celtics.
This postseason, however, began with a bang when White earned “MVP” chants after back-to-back games with 20-plus points in the first round against Atlanta. The conference semifinals proved to be a bigger challenge, as he couldn’t consistently establish a groove on either end of the floor against Philadelphia.
But the Celtics, as they prepare for Saturday night’s Game 6 in Miami, can’t afford for White to fade.
In the past two games, as they have clawed their way back, White has made 60 percent of his 3-point attempts. His shot-making is critical to the team’s spacing and offensive success. With so much defensive attention dedicated to Brown and Jayson Tatum, White needs to take advantage of his open looks, both from range and at the rim.
“That just gives us a well-balanced attack to where we could spread the floor and share the ball and just play connected basketball,” coach Joe Mazzulla said.
Added Tatum, “You’re going to need big games from different guys at different points of a series. That’s why it’s a team sport. You need everybody at some point to come up big.”
Thursday night’s box score was an anomaly. Tatum and Brown will lead the Celtics in scoring most nights. But maintaining White’s production will be crucial to the Celtics, especially now that Malcolm Brogdon is managing a right forearm injury.
White, not one to seek the spotlight, has preached the importance of doing whatever is best for the team. Whether he’s starting or coming off the bench does not matter to him.
While he may downplay his individual contributions, White’s teammates, coaches, and others close to him recognize how essential they are to the Celtics’ title aspirations.
“If you look through history, most championship teams have a guy like Derrick,” Marcus Mason, White’s personal trainer, told the Globe this month. “If you go back to the ’80s Celtics, they have many of those guys.
“Obviously, they have Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, but then people talk about Dennis Johnson, the role Danny Ainge played, and all these different guys. If you go to any franchise, they’re going to have that guy.”
White’s father Richard sees his son’s role the same way.
“I always looked at it as if Derrick can be the third-, fourth-best player on a team, your team is going to be pretty good,” he said, “because I know what he’s going to do, and that means you have three people who are consistently doing better than him, then you’re good. You have something.”
The Celtics took a big swing when they traded for White. At the time, the hope was that he could be a piece to push them over the edge in their quest for banner No. 18. Now, even down in the conference finals, that still holds true.